By Mark Hallum
The victory of Donald Trump in November 2016 triggered an insurrection against a group of breakaway Democrats in the state Senate from mainline party advocates, which would become a prominent political battle in Queens in 2017.
State Sens. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) and Tony Avella (D-Bayside) saw intense resistance from both constituents and colleagues for their involvement in the Independent Democratic Committee. The IDC was formed in 2011 to counteract the Republican majority in the Legislature by so that members could negotiate with GOP officials to pass progressive legislation.
As Trump took office, however, public opinion toward the IDC’s eight members turned negative as accusations they were caucusing with the GOP and that they were actually hindering progressive legislation began to take hold.
“Today’s political climate demands that progressive legislators take bold action to deliver for their constituents,” Peralta said in January 2017 when he announced his defection to the IDC. “That’s why I’ve decided to join the Independent Democratic Conference, where I can best effect progressive change on issues like affordable housing, higher education, school funding equity, homelessness reforms, economic development, infrastructure upgrades, affordable healthcare, senior citizen protections and so much more. The IDC’s track record on delivering for the most vulnerable New Yorkers is irrefutable.”
Within a month, elected officials such U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley (D-Jackson Heights), chairman of the Queens Democratic Party, and state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) as well as Councilmen Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) and Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria) made their opposition clear to Peralta’s decision to switch to the IDC.
Peralta was thrown from his own Democratic club, New Visions.
“He has betrayed this community in this way, going to caucus with the party of Trump at a time when our values are under attack,” Constantinides said at an anti-IDC rally in February. “Where immigrant families are feeling unease and possible deportation, he stands with the party that won’t defend them.”
At a town hall, constituents shouted “traitor” at Peralta.
Avella, who joined the IDC in 2014, was next on the list.
Progressive groups such as Rise and Resist, No IDC NY and Empire State Indivisible made their voices known at rallies and events calling on Avella to rejoin the Democratic Party with cries of “Phony Tony, you lied to us.”
In late February, about 50 protesters showed up at Avella’s district office on Bell Boulevard and were met by around 20 counter-protesters in favor of Avella. Among them was community activist Paul Graziano, who challenged Councilman Paul Vallone (D-Bayside) in the primary and general election later in 2017.
The counter-protesters defended Avella’s track record of getting legislation passed and saying it was in keeping with Democratic values. One Avella supporter pointed out that the GOP majority would still control the state Senate whether the IDC had a seat at the table or not, while being part of the ruling coalition brings benefits to constituents and provides Democrats some voice in crafting legislation.
Avella handled the protesters by calling small groups of them into his office where he debated their arguments against the IDC with them directly.
He argued that he is behind Democratic legislation such as the DREAM Act, which he co-sponsored in every version introduced to the Senate. In fact, he blamed the most recent defeat of the bill to allow undocumented immigrants to qualify for financial aid on traditional Democrats, and he objected to partisan purity tests.
The Working Families Party and NYIndivisible protested again at Avella’s office in May.
The day before Democrat Brian Benjamin had won a special election to the state Senate to represent Harlem. The landslide vote of about 98 percent in his favor reclaimed the Democratic majority with 32 of the 63 seats in the chamber.
State Sen. Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn) has caucused and voted alongside the GOP since he was elected as a progressive, bringing the number of Dems caucusing apart from the mainline party to nine.
“The Democrats were voted into the majority in the Senate and should be functioning as a majority, but they’re not because the IDC caucuses separately, leaving the majority to the Republicans,” said one protester, who was bused in from outside of Queens. “Some progressive legislation gets through, sometimes watered down. But many, many bills don’t even make it to floor. That’s because we are not functioning as a majority. We would like to see single payer pass, the Dream Act, women’s reproductive health and other issues.”
But a tentative peace between the warring Democrats would appear on the horizon as a letter from top mainline party leaders called for members of the IDC to form a coalition to regain control of the state Senate or face primary challenges.
The letter asked IDC officials to work with the party to claim two seats in special elections outside of Queens and convince conservative Democrat Felder to caucus once again with his own party instead of with the Republicans.
If the eight IDC officials did not agree to the pact, the Democratic Party would launch primary opponents their way.
Avella and IDC leader Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx) both said they would accept the terms of the coalition as long as the Democrats actually achieved the majority through victory in the special elections and if Felder agreed to return to the party.
But not everybody accepted the pact.
City and state elected officials spoke out at a Dec. 7 forum in Fresh Meadows against the IDC, claiming the breakaway Democrats had no interest in actually forming a coalition with the mainline party.
City Comptroller Scott Stringer joined Public Advocate Letitia James, state Sen. Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) and Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillside) spoke at event organized by anti-IDC group Empire State Indivisible claiming Avella was not a team player to begin with and should be replaced in a primary regardless.
Elections for the state officials’ seats will take place near the end of 2018, with former Mayor de Blasio adviser Jessica Ramos said she was considering a challenge to Peralta on the Democratic line.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall